University of Kansas Student Housing suffered immense financial losses during COVID-19. Many students left dorms, causing Housing’s revenue to decrease significantly.
Housing received over $7 million in COVID-19 federal relief funds between fiscal years 2020 and 2022, according to the Kansas Board of Regents’ December 2021 meeting agenda.
Even with federal aid, Housing operated at a loss of about $2.6 million in the 2021 fiscal year, according to KU Housing Director Sarah Waters and KBOR’s meeting agenda. Moreover, KU Housing’s gross operating revenue dropped from approximately $34 million in fiscal year 2020 to around $29 million in fiscal year 2021.
“We did take that dip,” Waters said. “We knew we wouldn’t quite recover for this year.”
Waters said Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer’s announcement about online classes in 2020 drove students away from University housing.
“We lost over 400 students after Aug. 4, and that would be unheard of,” Waters said.
Housing experienced its worst occupancy rate in fall 2020, with only 81.5% of spaces occupied, a comparatively low percentage.
Low occupancy levels led KU Housing to make fewer capital improvements because of loss of revenue, Waters said.
KU proposed housing and dining fee increases to KBOR in 2021, according to a University Daily Kansan article. The All Scholarship Hall Council was the only body representing KU students in Housing’s fee increase proposals. In an email to Waters, ASHC President Carson Sevart single-handedly approved the fee without consulting with ASHC Full Council. Student Senate criticized KU for lack of student input in fee proposals.
ASHC President-elect Lane Caraway-Short said ASHC can’t continue to approve fees on behalf of all students at KU.
“I don’t think I’m in a position to decide how much someone pays on Daisy Hill,” Caraway-Short said. “At the same time, I don’t think anyone higher up who’s not lived in those halls should make those decisions without the consent and expressions of the people who live there.”
KU Housing’s debt has been at an all-time high since fiscal year 2017, with a slow drop, according to KBOR meeting agenda. KU Housing has not had any capital expenditures since 2019 due to loss of revenue during COVID-19.
The department currently owes $113 million on Downs Hall and Stouffer Place construction projects, according to Waters and KBOR meeting agenda.
Pattern of financial difficulties
Housing’s financial difficulties link back to a larger pattern that was first triggered by bold construction plans in 2011.
In 2011, the University constructed the Central District, which relied on funding from KU Housing and KU Parking instead of general funds, according to a UDK article.
KU made inaccurate estimations regarding increased international student enrollment in 2018, according to a UDK article. One factor is that University administrators did not anticipate the impact of travel restrictions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
In fact, contrary to the administration’s expectations of doubling international enrollment, the University lost almost 20% of its international student population. The number of international students at KU dropped from almost 2,300 to around 1,850 between 2018 and 2021, according to data from KU Analytics, Institutional Research and Effectiveness.
In addition to the $113 million debt to Downs Hall and Stouffer Place, Housing owes $71 million to other capital improvements, including Templin, according to KBOR meeting agenda and Waters.
Housing’s recent major projects
Templin Hall will reopen in fall 2022 as the honors dorm, Waters said. While Housing could have made much bigger renovations, the department made “very modest” renovations in Templin’s bathrooms but did not increase the hall’s room rates.
“That’s where you have to make hard decisions,” Waters said. “You can do smaller projects or you can do a larger one.”
Impact on scholarship halls
In 2020, KU Housing closed scholarship hall kitchens due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the UDK. The closure caused a major inconvenience for residents who had to walk to Gertrude Sellards Pearson Hall, which is about 10-15 minutes away from the scholarship halls.
“We had quite a few returners,” Waters said. ”Then, they decided to leave housing as that decision about the schol’ halls was made in summer of 2020.”
Kitchens reopened in spring 2021, according to the UDK. Students noted the inequity in dining options in scholarship halls, with more options available for residence hall residents.
Housing believes the decision to close kitchens was correct, Waters said. The department prioritized students’ safety.
“We knew it was not what the students wanted to happen because the kitchens are a vital part of community building,” Waters said.
While overall occupancy rates increased in 2021, scholarship halls continue to have a lower population, according to KU Analytics, Institutional Research and Effectiveness.
The scholarship hall kitchens suffer from supply chain difficulties, Waters said. Sysco stopped supplying KU, leaving US Foods as the only food supplier for scholarship halls.
“You will want to order things, and we can’t get it because US Foods hasn’t been able to get it,” Waters said. “That has definitely impacted food service everywhere, but in schol’ halls especially.”
There will be about 350 returning residents next year, Waters said. The scholarship halls will have 210 first-year residents.
“If we can keep that momentum, keep working together, then I think the schol’ halls will keep being a really impactful place,” Waters said.